Disclaimer: I do not own any of the works referenced in this guide, nor am I attempting to insult them. Have a nice day.
The Sane Writer's Guide To: The Mary Sue
Chapter One: Because Perfection is Overrated
Remember the days when you could recognize a Mary Sue just by her name? Yes, that needlessly-exotic, overly long name that every Sue tended to have. For instance, take our dear Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way, main character of the notorious Harry Potter fanfiction My Immortal. Back then, if a character's name contained more words than the summary of their story, alarms would have gone off immediately.
Unfortunately, the modern Mary Sue is not so easily noticed. Gone are the technicolor eyes and multicolored hair, the dark and mysterious pasts and the ability to make any canon characters fall for them. Sues today are no longer as they once were, but they are still just as bad as their more noticeable past counterparts.
Although today there exist tests which will supposedly reveal whether an original character, canon or otherwise, is a Mary Sue, they are not always accurate, and it is relatively simple for a Sue to slip under the radar. The purpose of this guide is to explain what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue, and how to redeem them.
However...what makes the Mary Sue?
In a nutshell, Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue as "a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader."
Outside of the nutshell, TV Tropes goes more in-depth, describing a Mary Sue as "an original female character in a fanfic who...serves as an idealized version of the author...exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws...either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing. She has an unusual and dramatic back story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues... if any character doesn't love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal...In other words, the term "Mary Sue" is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature."
Although the Mary Sue is an archetype which originated in fanfiction and other fan creations, is is also alarmingly common in published works as well. This canon-specific archetype is called the Canon Sue. Some well known examples of Canon Sues are Wesley Crusher of Star Trek: The Next Generation, hated for his obnoxiousness not only by fans, but by the actor playing him; the titular character of Eragon, who thus far has fallen into nearly every Sue pitfall in existence, from his status as the Chosen One to his Luke Skywalker-esque relation to the villain; and Bella Swan of Twilight, a blatant author insert who has gotten nearly every male character in the series to fall in love with her. The Mary Sue archetype has existed as long as stories have, as seen in such characters as Sir Galahad of Arthurian mythology.
As mentioned above, the present-day Mary Sues are harder to find. They are more or less less outlandish than they used to be. Perhaps their lustrous, silky hair is only two different colors instead of five. Perhaps their eyes are not constantly referred to as "shimmering sapphire orbs", or "jewel-like amethyst spheres". Perhaps their impeccable wardrobes do not require an extra paragraph of description every chapter. However, the original definition of a Mary Sue still applies today: A Mary Sue is an unrealistically idealized character without any real flaws.
To tell if your original character is a Mary Sue, be they for a fanfiction or an original concept, is a relatively simple process.
For instance, what is your character's appearance like? Try to have a legitimate reason for your character's physical traits. This does not necessarily mean that all details of a character's appearance have to have a reason, only that the most unnatural ones are justified. Unless you are working within a universe in which implausible hair colors and eye colors are the norm, try to avoid them unless they have an in-universe explanation. For instance, maybe that character with tri-colored hair likes dyeing it, but gets bored with the change quickly and re-dyes it so often that it is a multitude of colors. The guy who wears sunglasses at night or at other times where they wouldn't be necessary? Maybe they're there to hide something or he wears them because they were a gift from someone he cares about.
Also, be aware of factors that could both positively or negatively impact your character's appearance: if your character is stranded on a desert island for a long period of time, their hair will grow, clothes will tear, etc. They will not wake up looking perfect if they don't have the means to do so.
Finally, unless your character's outfit is extremely important to later events, do not waste a paragraph or two describing it in lavish detail. If you include a full paragraph of description which has no impact on the story itself, you're wasting both your own time and that of the reader.
On to your character's personality. What do they act like in general? Around their friends? Their family? Their enemies? Just like in real life, a character's environment at the time affects how they will respond. If you can describe everything about your character's personality in just a few words, especially if they are words for an overused concept like "a jerk jock" or "the popular queen bee" or "the shy, bookish nerd", then it's suggested that you attempt to flesh out your character more. Say you have a popular mean girl. We've seen this character so many times that it will most likely provoke a groan from your reader. Therefore, what can you do to make this character interesting, original, and not the same cookie-cutter person seen in so many other places? Maybe she writes poetry when she's lonely. Maybe she likes groan-inducing puns. Maybe she plays hockey with her little brothers on the weekends. Heck, maybe she's a horrible cook no matter how hard she tries. This character now has a vague semblance of an original personality, and with a little work she could become a well rounded character.
An important part of not creating a Mary Sue is giving them realistic flaws. Say your character's defining negative characteristic is that he can't play the xylophone. Unless your story is centered around a xylophone competition which your character has to win, or his tribe has a coming of age ritual involving playing the xylophone, this is not a good flaw. Think about character's you've read about, people you know, even yourself. Just for a little while, focus on what they fail at. Maybe your best friend stutters when she's excited, or your cousin is in the habit of biting his nails. Your character doesn't have to have pyromaniacal tendencies to be flawed, but he can't have an aura of utter perfection either. Just don't go out of your way to make your character suck too badly, this is called making an Anti Sue and it's not any better than making a Mary Sue.
Talents walk hand in hand with flaws, and in some ways they're more important. Does your character have realistic talents that might actually impact the plot? If your character can speak seven different languages and can perform advance gymnastics techniques for no other reason than that she can, try revising your character. Just like with flaws, look at the people around you for ideas on giving your characters realistic talents.
However, there is one important detail about Mary Sues: A Mary Sue is a idealized character, but an idealized character is not always a Mary Sue. Although it's exceptionally rare, there are a few cases today of Sues done right. They're still a perfect character with few flaws, yet you like them. Maybe it's the wish-fulfillment thing again, maybe it's just that the author is just that good. Some of the few examples are Kvothe of The Name Of the Wind, who is pretty much the ideal hero yet doesn't come off as obnoxious, or Harry Potter of the series of the same name, who, like Eragon above, falls into nearly every Sue pitfall...yet pulls it off spectacularly. Note that this isn't a recommendation to go write Sues and hope it works out, but Mary Sue, in the hands of an expert, is a wonder.
If it turns out that your beloved character is setting off Mary Sue warning signs left and right, don't get too down on yourself. Nearly every writer has had a Sue at one point. Some give up writing and go on to other things, feeling like failures. Others keep going. The key is learning from what you did wrong and using your new knowledge to set things right.
I wish you luck.
Author's Note: I'd like to thank any readers in advance. Good luck to you all.
If there are any other writing-related queries you have, Mary Sue-related or otherwise, please feel free to request them in a review. If I have the expertise on the subject and the time to write the guide in, I'll create it.
For the fanfiction writers in the audience, I am also planning on writing a few canon-specific guides for the fandoms I am most knowledgeable on, and publishing them on my account.
Let it also be said that I have plans for many more such guides in the works, and that I would enjoy it if those reading would take the time to check them out at a later date.
Thank you, farewell, and review if you can.